One thing is clear: High-quality leadership is an enormously powerful force in shaping an organization’s long-term, sustained success. In order to get the best out of their people while contending with the inevitable dilemmas, uncertainty and complexity that comes with operating in today’s business environment, leaders must be at the very top of their game.
Over the past five years, we have been asking people to list the top three qualities they want in their leaders. We have collected survey responses from over 2,100 leaders and individual contributors working in organizations across a broad range of industries, including manufacturing, entertainment, pharmaceutical, hospitality, government and transportation.
The data is in and, after careful analysis, we have identified eight major categories of characteristics and skills that people find most desirable in a leader:
- Communication skills (45.2%)
- Interpersonal skills (44.2%)
- Values and ethics (41.9%)
- Personal attributes (30.2%)
- Coaching and feedback (21.8%)
- Credibility (22.3%)
- Direction and strategy (16.7%)
- Management essentials (5.6%)
Let’s examine what this research can tell leaders who want to improve their leadership abilities and take employee engagement to the next level.
Over 45% of the people in our study indicated that the ability to communicate effectively is an essential leadership skill. However, we know that effective communication is often the most challenging part of a leader’s job. Leaders spend a significant amount of time in interpersonal interactions of some kind. Organizations are in a constant state of change. People need a leader who can share important information and artfully engage in dialogue, as well as other modes of communication. That said, what is most revealing is that responses to our study identified the ability to listen as the most critical communication skill. People want to be heard. They want to engage in two-way dialogue and have open lines of communication with their leaders.
Although communication is obviously an important element of people skills, over 44% of our survey respondents indicated that there are additional aspects of interpersonal relationships that enable leaders to build rapport and create emotional connections with others. These are behaviors and tactics that are critical but often overlooked – including emotional intelligence, supportiveness, approachability, empathy and patience. Team members want leaders who are present and consistently treat people with respect. They want leaders who are self-aware, composed, fair and able to work effectively with all types of people. Interpersonal skills combined with communication abilities foster strong and enduring working relationships.
Values and Ethics
Nearly 42% of our survey respondents indicated that they want their leaders to demonstrate strong values and uphold high ethical standards. Employees want to know that they can count on their leaders to do the right thing no matter what. Leaders can’t expect others to act ethically if they don’t model those behaviors themselves. They have to be worth emulating. It is not only who you are on the inside but what you do on the outside. Leaders who live their values naturally build trust and credibility among their employees and in their organizations. The research described in James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s book, “The Leadership Challenge,” found that people value honesty the most over other leadership qualities (89%). Our research reinforces the long-held notion that people want leaders with integrity.
Over 30% of respondents indicated that a leader’s personal attributes — passion, commitment, flexibility, optimism and accountability — are important leadership characteristics. Particularly when organizations encounter challenges, people ask themselves:
- Is my leader dedicated and engaged?
- Is my leader persistent and capable of working through setbacks?
- Is my leader passionate and able to take action?
- Does my leader get results?
- Does my leader act like an owner?
- Is my leader accountable?
- Is my leader consistent and reliable but flexible when needed?
Enthusiasm and commitment can be difficult to sustain over time, especially during periods of upheaval. However, to help the organization achieve its goals, leaders need to be willing to invest themselves fully in their work and in the success of their team members.
Coaching and Feedback
Coaching is a valuable mechanism for maximizing the potential of others, helping people contribute their best talents and skills while driving results for the organization. Employees who receive regular coaching and feedback will perform at a higher level and be more engaged. Nearly 22% of our survey respondents wanted their leaders to be able to coach and develop others effectively. In another study we conducted, 70% of respondents indicated a preference for leaders who coach them directly, openly and candidly when working together to develop solutions. People want a leader who shares feedback about blind spots, supports their professional growth and provides the information they need to excel in their roles.
Leadership credibility develops over time and is determined more by leaders’ actions than their words. Our research indicates that having a leader with a high degree of competence, expertise and experience is extremely important to people. Employees want to feel confident that their leader has the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively lead the team, execute on the tasks at hand and generate desired results. Leaders need to be avid learners and demonstrate that they are willing to work as hard or harder than everyone else. Leaders truly set the tone for how people grow and invest in their ongoing personal development.
Direction and Strategy
People in the modern workforce want to be connected to a cause they can feel good about; something that is sustainable, enduring and bigger than themselves. They want to be valued for their abilities and recognized for their potential. They want to work for visionary leaders who set audacious but attainable goals and fight tirelessly for the future. Understanding the importance of the work they do everyday matters to them. All this should underscore why having a clearly communicated direction and strategy is a key component of employee engagement. Visionary and strategic leaders know exactly what winning means for them, their teams and the organization. They can formulate an ideal picture of a preferred future state and clearly describe the destination to others. They are not afraid of thinking big and going all out, but they also balance their ambitions with agility, patience and reason.
Interestingly, only 5.6% of our survey respondents indicated that fundamental management skills were important to them in a leader; soft skills seemed to take much greater precedence. Even so, a leader’s success depends in part on his or her ability to master the fundamentals of management — planning, organizing and staffing — combined with and supported by people-leadership traits. The people in our study who contributed to this category indicated that they want to follow someone who executes on plans and makes things happen. These are leaders who have the discipline and organizational skills needed to get things done effectively and efficiently. We have found that leaders with strong business acumen and an enterprise mindset are better able to influence others and drive results. They know how to bring plans, processes and people together to unlock great results.
What Does This Mean for You?
Although everyone has their own leadership style and strengths, your success as a leader will be determined by your ability to consistently demonstrate and cultivate capabilities and characteristics that fall into the eight categories above.
The key is to look at leadership as a set of beliefs and capabilities that are seamlessly integrated into the work leaders do each day. There are certainly situations that call for formal and deliberate leadership:
- Introducing a new mission or vision
- Conducting a performance review
- Introducing a change initiative
- Launching a new product or service
- Leading a formal meeting
But situations like those listed above represent only a small fraction of a leader’s time. We need to be mindful and recognize that the type of leadership people seek occurs in the midst of micro-opportunities and daily activities.
Most of the work leaders do happens as the work is being executed. Take communication and coaching: A leader’s best opportunities to share information or coach others typically occur during project reviews, team huddles, spontaneous moments of engagement or when a challenge arises. Leadership can and should be practiced as we walk through the office, respond to calls and exchange emails with our colleagues. When we engage people in dialogue, coach or create plans, our leadership skills and style surface. These situations put us in perfect position to practice positive leadership, provide reinforcement, share our vision for the future and create real value for the business. The opportunities to apply good leadership skills are abundant. However, if leaders don’t recognize the day-to-day moments along with the big, visible moments, they could miss valuable opportunities to share information, spark creative ideas, promote encouragement or create ownership for a plan of action.
With a little awareness, leaders can leverage these moments and shape a lasting leadership legacy. People around us are forming opinions and unconsciously deciding whether they will give us their best performance. Even the very best leaders cannot achieve success alone. To make a measurable impact, you must enroll and influence others. Over time, people will draw their own conclusions about whether you are interested in them, care about their development and want them to succeed. This will often be decided in daily interactions, so smart leaders will work hard to recognize what is important to the workforce and use these skills in leadership situations of all types.